Bolivia Was The Closest I’ve Come To Death

I was a month or so into my trip and was finding my feet as I hit Cusco. It was my first real experience of altitude and I felt the effects, as I dragged myself up the winding hill to the Loki hostel. Originating in the North of Scotland, I’d grown up with the cheek to refer to myself as a ‘Highlander’ but I’m not sure I’d ever refer to myself that way again, after this experience. I grew up at 230m above sea level, the highest point in the Highlands is Ben Nevis at 1345m and now, here I was in Cusco at 3400m above sea level and gasping for air.

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I’d covered quite a bit of ground up till now, after initially arriving into Panama, dead on my feet, after a marathon flight from London via a 6 hour stopover in Miami. I’d almost immediately set off for a 5 day sailing trip from Panama to Colombia, sailing via the idyllic San Blas Islands and meeting the local, indigenous Kuna People. After arrival in Cartagena, I set off south via Medellin, Salento, Popayan, through Ecuador and into Peru.

Colombia and Ecuador had been beautiful places but tense also. The stifling heat and humidity of Cartagena makes people easily irritable. The recent history of drug cartels in Medellin provided an edge to the place. Armed street robberies were rife in Quito and I really needed to have my wits about me, night and day.

When I hit Mancora – a goofy surfing, beach paradise in the north west of Peru – I was not only relieved to find it at a more relaxed pace, I was also starting to feel more comfortable on the road. Peru was glorious, from the capital Lima, where it never rains, to the Nazca Lines in the deserts to the south. As I climbed the unfathomable heights up the mountains to the old Inca capital, Cusco I felt breathless in more ways than one. I found a simple but idyllic little city with friendly locals working in the tourist trade and backpackers from a variety of nations, drawn in by the near-by Machu Picchu world heritage site. But I wasn’t quite ready for that. First, I felt like a little fun.

This was the first Loki hostel I’d stayed at and I’d chosen it specifically, as I was in the mood to party. The Lonely Planet I had described it as ‘not for the faint hearted’ and I took this as a glowing endorsement. There were dress up parties, pool tournament meet-ups, Karaoke nights and lots of cheesy entertainment that I’d usually turn my nose up at back at home.  Here was different though and I felt I wanted to get in the spirit of things and had a social hunger to meet new people from all walks of life. I was hitting the bar at dinner time, hitting the club at closing time and not getting up until 1pm the next day. Eat, drink, sleep and repeat. It was an incredible two weeks of fun and the only reason I managed to maintain my sanity was with the 4 day trek I took, in comparative sobriety to Machu Picchu to see the spectacular ruins amongst the mist-shrouded hills.

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My next major port of call was La Paz. I faced another climb to the highest city I’ve ever been to at 3640m – almost three times Ben Nevis height. The lung-busting capital of Bolivia had another Loki hostel – this one equipped with its own oxygen bar – so I opted to continue the party theme I’d developed in Cusco and booked straight in. Here, there are some wild experiences you can do. I managed to visit San Pedro prison – made famous in Rusty Young’s book ‘Marching Powder’ about a British man imprisoned there for drug trafficking offences. To go inside the prison and have a tour conducted by the inmates was an unforgettable experience. The key for us being able to do this, was to turn up in a large group, with a couple of Spanish speakers able to negotiate. I think it helped to be in the company of people who looked and acted like they are able to take the place in their stride. Confident and ready to embrace the experience.

There were parties every night in Loki and the Wild Rover hostel – the equally debauched Irish themed hostel round the corner, full of fun and booze. Every few nights there were groups heading off in search of the infamous Route 36 bar and one night I managed to tag along.

Some people would criticise my party style of travel I’m sure but at the time I was 28 years old and had spent the last 10 years of my life working solidly in jobs I didn’t care that much for. I needed to blow off some steam. I was still absorbing culture, seeing the sights and meeting people from all walks of life – it was great. Or at least it was, until I got ill.

At first, I put it down as being a hangover. So did my friend, who insisted I was acting like a wimp and proceeded to drag me round the market stalls of La Paz, up winding alleyways with steep inclines, struggling to catch my breath at high altitude. As the day progressed, I felt worse and worse and was bed-ridden by the end of it.

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The next day, I knew I had to get out. I bought a ticket for the first bus to northern Argentina, which was 2 days later due to public holidays. I knew I needed to get down to a lower level and get more oxygen into my body. I visited the oxygen bar in the hostel but it seemed to have little to no effect due to the short 10 minute sessions they sold, not being long enough respite for comfort. I figured it might be some kind of attitude sickness but also felt like there was something infectious stirring in my body.

When it eventually came time for my bus ride out of town, I was feeling worse again and had begun to wheeze after walking even a short distance. You would have thought I would have been happy to get out of La Paz – away from its limited third world medical services – but there was just one problem. I had to go up, in order to go down. My next stop was Uyuni, standing at an altitude of 3700m above sea level. I spent the night in one of the most basic hotel rooms I’ve ever been in. I wheezed my way through a long night and even had to ask my co-traveller – who spoke no Spanish whatsoever – to go out in search of any recommended medicine from a pharmacy for altitude sickness. It was the worst night I have ever spend on the road.

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The next day, I was thankful I was still alive. I boarded a bus to Salta and started to feel more comfortable as we headed down the mountains to an altitude of just 1152m. I didn’t stay long and made a break for Rosario, where my co-traveller had arranged to meet up with a friend of a friend who could give me some advice and directions to medical facilities.

Those two kind Argentinian men were amazing. They took us into their home. Took me to the doctor and even let me put the examination on their medical insurance to make it cheaper for me. The doctor examined me – a very pleasant Argentinian lady – and said she could see nothing wrong and suggested that it was altitude sickness combined with a cold. After this was translated to me by my new found friend, I protested and asked for her to look again. Under duress and after I gave her some examples of how breathing deeply cause a rumbling sound, deep within my chest, she agreed and I was x-rayed.

Twenty minutes later and the doctor was back. “lo siento, lo siento” she said genuinely, which is basic enough Spanish for me to understand. She had identified through the x-ray of my lungs, what the cause of my illness had been. As it turns out, I had decided the best time to contract Pneumonia was in the highest attitude capital city in the world – a lung disease where the air was the thinnest and least oxygenated.

It must be true that my partying hard had contributed to my illness but I have to say, I don’t regret it. This was my trip and I did it my way – warts and all. This will be one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. It might be my greatest hard luck story and it also taught me a lot about myself, about the kindness of strangers, about communicating compassionately with people who hardly understand a word you are saying. Travelling isn’t always supposed to be fun. For me travelling is about learning and experiencing things and I certain got the chance to do that here.

I took the prescription for the most powerful antibiotics I’d ever seen from the apologetic doctors outstretched hand and made straight for the pharmacy.

Thanks, Ian

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(A backpacking & adventure travel blog with music, films & words)

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